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    2 Comments for this article
    An opportunity
    Frederick Rivara, MD, MPH | University of Washington
    This study is important for drawing our attention to a point in care where we can intervene to decrease the use of opioids. These opportunities should be used by hospitals, pharmacy benefit managers and physicians to use non-narcotic drugs to treat this and other common problems
    CONFLICT OF INTEREST: Editor in chief, JAMA Network Open
    Stephan Fihn, MD MPH | University of Washington

    As we seek to reduce and avoid misprescribing of opioids, it would seem to the benefit of patients, health care providers, insurers and the general public to provide better access to alternative strategies for managing chronic pain.

    CONFLICT OF INTEREST: Deputy Editor, JAMA Network Open
    Original Investigation
    Health Policy
    June 22, 2018

    Prescription Drug Coverage for Treatment of Low Back Pain Among US Medicaid, Medicare Advantage, and Commercial Insurers

    Author Affiliations
    • 1Center for Drug Safety and Effectiveness, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore, Maryland
    • 2Department of Epidemiology, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore, Maryland
    • 3Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, US Department of Health and Human Services, Washington, DC
    • 4National Institute on Drug Abuse, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland
    • 5Division of Unintentional Injury Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, Georgia
    • 6Department of Health Policy and Management, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore, Maryland
    • 7Department of Anesthesiology and Critical Care Medicine, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Baltimore, Maryland
    • 8National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland
    • 9Division of General Internal Medicine, Johns Hopkins Medicine, Baltimore, Maryland
    JAMA Netw Open. 2018;1(2):e180235. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2018.0235
    Key Points español 中文 (chinese)

    Question  Among US insurers, what are the coverage policies for pharmacologic treatments for low back pain?

    Findings  In this cross-sectional study of 62 products used to treat low back pain examined across 50 Medicaid, Medicare Advantage, and commercial insurance plans, utilization management strategies were common for nonopioids and opioids alike. Key informant interviews with plan executives underscored the frequent absence of comprehensive strategies to improve chronic pain treatment and to better integrate pharmacologic and nonpharmacologic opioid alternatives.

    Meaning  Our findings underscore important opportunities among insurers to redesign coverage policies to improve pain management and reduce opioid-related injuries and deaths.


    Importance  Despite unprecedented injuries and deaths from prescription opioids, little is known regarding medication coverage policies for the treatment of chronic noncancer pain among US insurers.

    Objective  To assess medication coverage policies for 62 products used to treat low back pain.

    Design, Setting, and Participants  A cross-sectional study of health plan documents from 15 Medicaid, 15 Medicare Advantage, and 20 commercial health plans in 2017 from 16 US states representing more than half the US population and 20 interviews with more than 43 senior medical and pharmacy health plan executives from representative plans. Data analysis was conducted from April 2017 to January 2018.

    Main Outcomes and Measures  Formulary coverage, utilization management, and patient out-of-pocket costs.

    Results  Of the 62 products examined, 30 were prescription opioids and 32 were nonopioid analgesics, including 10 nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, 10 antidepressants, 6 muscle relaxants, 4 anticonvulsants, and 2 topical analgesics. Medicaid plans covered a median of 19 opioids examined (interquartile range [IQR], 12-27; median, 63%; IQR, 40%-90%) and a median of 22 nonopioids examined (IQR, 21-27; median, 69%; IQR, 66%-83%). Medicare Advantage plans covered similar proportions (median [IQR], opioids: 17 [15-22]; 57% [50%-73%]; nonopioids: 22 [22-26]; 69% [69%-81%]), while commercial plans covered more opioids (median [IQR], 23 [21-25]; 77% [70%-84%]) and nonopioids (median [IQR], 26 [24-27]; 81% [74%-85%]). Utilization management strategies were common for opioids in Medicaid plans (median [IQR], 15 [11-20] opioids; 91% [74%-97%]), Medicare Advantage plans (median [IQR], 15 [9-18] opioids; 100% [100%-100%]), and commercial plans (median [IQR], 16 [11-20] opioids; 74% [53%-94%]), generally relying on 30-day quantity limits rather than prior authorization. Step therapy was especially uncommon. Many of the nonopioids examined also were subject to utilization management, especially quantity limits (24%-32% of products across payers) and prior authorization (median [IQR], commercial plans: 2 [0-3] nonopioids; 9% [0%-11%]; Medicare Advantage plans: 4 [3-5] nonopioids; 19% [10%-23%]; Medicaid plans: 6 [1-13] nonopioids; 38% [2%-52%]). Among commercial plans, the median plan placed 18 opioids (74%) and 20 nonopioids (81%) in tier 1, which was associated with a median out-of-pocket cost of $10 (IQR, $9-$10) per 30-day supply. Key informant interviews revealed an emphasis on increasing opioid utilization management and identifying high-risk prescribers and patients, rather than promoting comprehensive strategies to improve treatment of chronic pain or better integrating pharmacologic and nonpharmacologic alternatives to opioids.

    Conclusions and Relevance  Given the effect of coverage policies on drug utilization and health outcomes, these findings provide an important opportunity to evaluate how formulary placement, utilization management, copayments, and integration of nonpharmacologic treatments can be optimized to improve pain care while reducing opioid-related injuries and deaths.